In honor of Reformation I’m sharing some previous work I have done on Luther’s theology of the cross in relation to the church.
Luther’s view of the Church was shaped by his theology of the cross. Luther in his work On the Councils and the Church put forward a seventh mark of the true church which was considered revolutionary for his time. Luther is speaking of how the Church is to be recognized says:
Seventh, the holy Christian people are externally recognized by the holy possessions of the sacred cross. They must endure every misfortune and persecution, all kinds of trails and evil from the devil, the world, and the flesh (as the Lord’s Prayer indicates) by inward sadness, timidity, fear, outward poverty, contempt, illness, and weakness, in order to become like their head, Christ…In summary, they must be called heretics, knaves, and devils, the most pernicious people on earth, to the point where those who hang, drown, murder, torture, banish, and plague them to death are rendering God a service.
The Church in the eyes of Luther was not to be a privileged institution, safe and secure in the world. The idea that the true Church could enjoy peace and affluence in the world was unthinkable to Luther. For the Church to be the Church it must suffer for the sake of Christ. Where there is no bearing of the cross for the sake of Christ there is no Church. This is owing to Luther’s theology of the cross, because God can only be known through the suffering of the cross and this necessitates that the people of God partake in the suffering that comes through the cross. The cross is at the center of what it means for the people of God to be the Church of Christ. Oberman in addressing Luther’s understanding of the suffering Church points out tolerance and acceptance as a great danger to the Church. Luther calls the tolerance that he saw emerging as the trap of the devil because it threatened this mark of the Church.
Luther’s view of the role and gifting of the pastor display the outworking of the theology of the cross in the context of pastoral ministry. Luther says the following about God’s work in preachers: “God very wonderfully entrusts his highest office to preachers that are themselves poor sinner who, while teaching it, very weakly follow it. Thus goes it ever with God’s power in our weakness; for when he is weakest in us, then is he strongest.” Whereas human wisdom would think that the power of God would be evidenced in the strength and sufficiency of those whom he has called to proclaim his word, Luther sees that God works contrary to human wisdom. God will not allow human wisdom or human works to dictate whom he will use as his instrument. This is the outworking of the theology of the cross being worked out in regards to pastoral ministry. The theologian of glory would not accept this statement by Luther.
Luther’s dealings with those those whom he disagreed with such as the Anabaptists, paptists, and other groups show the importance of the theology of the cross in his work. The theology of the cross was the theological framework through which he evaluated all the groups and thoughts he came into contact with. For example in writing to Melanchthon he gives the following guidelines:
In order to explore their individual spirit too, you should inquire whether they have experienced spiritual distress and the divine birth, death, and hell. If you should hear that all [their experiences] are pleasant, quiet, devout (as they say), and spiritual, then don’t approve of them, even if they should say that they were caught up up to the third heaven. The sign of the Son of Man is then missing, which is the only touchstone of Christians and a certain differentiator between the spirits…Therefore examine [them] and do not even listen if they speak of the glorified Jesus, unless you have first heard the crucified Jesus…
The mark of the Christian is to be quickened through being killed by the Word of God. God is the one who contrary to all expectation makes alive through killing. These prophets of glory spoke of wonderful experiences of rapturous delight and glory, that in itself was enough for Luther to call their teaching into question. That emphasis was entirely contrary to the core of Luther’s theology of the cross. One must have the mark of the Son of Man, the mark of the cross made upon the life of the believer. To have a glorious Christ divorced from the cross was to have a false Christ and was to be a false prophet. As suffering and persecution make the Church the true Church, so also bearing the cross on the individual level makes a Christian a true Christian. The mark of the Son of Man is to bear the suffering of the cross in this present world, this was something Luther felt was lacking in the experience of many of the false teachers he came in contact with.